Only Zombies Worship Styrofoam Jesus
Audiences long for epiphany, Bobette Buster explained. She was talking to 100 participants in the Q Sessions that met in October 2011 in downtown Manhattan. Buster is an experienced Hollywood story consultant who has worked with Pixar, Sony, and many other companies to help them generate stories filled with epiphany and transformation. At the Q Sessions, she taught some of her secrets to the attendees, usually referring to movies since that is the form of storytelling that she knows best.
Good movies lead characters through an epiphany to a major transformation, and great movies allow the audience to experience the transformation along with the characters.
Unfortunately, these moments of transformation often come too easily for the characters. Sometimes they depend upon contrived plot twists. Sometimes a character's realization about the world is simply too shallow to inspire us.
Avoid Cheap Epiphanies and Superficial Obstacles
You have read these stories and seen these movies. Do you remember Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Audiences everywhere lost hope in the film when its source of epiphany turned out to be … space aliens. In the first Indiana Jones adventure, he learned that a few sacred artifacts are truly sacred. God himself is in the Ark of the Covenant.
The alien powers of the Crystal Skull paled in comparison. The movie offered cheap epiphany, cheap thrills, and obstacles that were much too easily overcome.
George Lucas was following the same formula he had followed with previous movies, but the formula had become rote. Like other leaders of Hollywood, Lucas spent his career looking to the work of Joseph Campbell and the story arc of the Hero's Journey. Campbell called this story arc the monomyth because so many stories fall into this pattern. A hero is called forth from common society, goes out to battle with supernatural forces, then returns victorious to share new wisdom with the world. According to Campbell, stories succeed when storytellers should "Follow their bliss."
Bobette Buster politely disagrees. She encouraged Q attendees to follow their fears, instead. We will find bliss when we learn to face our fears.
Seek Epiphany by Following Your Fear
Perhaps this explains the incredible enthusiasm around The Walking Dead. AMC, the network behind the hit drama, insists that "Story matters here." The show is not for everyone, but it is more than a gorefest of ultraviolence. As Buster says, The Walking Dead forces audiences to face their fears of death. "Zombies are a way to face the existential terror we feel at the awareness of our own mortality," explains zombie storyteller Will McIntosh. Another writer, John Langan says, "With the zombie, what you get is us, pretty much as we are, maybe with a little damage, and we consume each other."
The Walking Dead faces this fear, and judging by the popularity of the series, leads the audience to some meaningful epiphanies on the other side. In the first episode of Season 2, several characters seek an epiphany in a small church where they pray to a figure of Jesus on the cross.
At the climax of the episode, Sheriff Rick Grimes kneels before Jesus and prays:
"I don't know if you look at me with what, sadness? scorn? pity? love? Maybe it's just indifference.
"I guess you already know I'm not much of a believer. I guess I just chose to put my faith elsewhere. Family mostly. And friends. My job. Thing is, we … I could use a little something to help keep us going. Some kind of acknowledgement. Some indication I'm doing the right thing. You don't know how hard that is to know.
"Or maybe you do.
"Hey, look, I don't need all the answers. Just a little nudge. A sign. Any sign will do."
Sheriff Grimes yearns for an epiphany. And he rightly seeks the epiphany at the foot of the cross. Like everyone else in the show, Sheriff Grimes is doing his best to avoid becoming the living dead.
This brings us right back to Bobette Buster. "Successful stories," she explains, "show how characters overcame their fears and moved from death to life among the living dead."
Good movies, good plays, good novels, good stories in any form lead us to an earned epiphany. We believe the character's transformation, and in our belief we experience the transformation along with the characters in the story. Watching characters avoid living death, reading about characters who avoid living death, we avoid it ourselves.
And we remember our own encounters with godly wisdom.
There Is No Blood in a Styrofoam Jesus
I had an epiphany when I met Stryofoam Jesus one Sunday morning several years ago. Our megachurch asked me to lead a prayer during several of its many weekend worship services. So I found myself in the backstage area, in a little sitting room with snacks and coffee and comfortable couches where we prayed together before each service, then waited for our cue to walk onstage. My wife and I both spent many years serving our church through drama, so I had come to accept the artifice of our Sunday worship.